The Riches of Voluntary Poverty

Mark 12:41-44 & 2 Corinthians 8:1-15
Stewardship Season
Elizabeth M. Deibert

I am so glad to be back with you I can hardly contain it. My gratitude is overwhelming, gushing, embarrassing. I love this congregation and I love the way ministry with you pushes me, challenges me. Of course, my extreme joy in being back is not that I had a bad time in Greece, far from it. I thoroughly enjoyed the time with Emily and the privilege of seeing places like this, where monks and nuns have been drawing near to God and praying for the world for 600 years. (image of Greece) I was challenged, however, by the poverty which I saw. Beggars on the street, relentlessly calling out “parakalo, parakalo” (please, please) Graffiti stubbornly asserting itself against natural beauty. (Graffiti image) People walking through restaurants desperately trying to sell their wares – things we would hesitate to buy for fifty cents at a yard sale. Abandoned puppies left by the side of the road, like these whose pitiful cries broke Emily’s heart. (Image of Puppies) We were keenly aware of simpler lifestyles, of clothing hanging on balconies, of tiny apartments and narrow, noisy streets, of a clearer view into poverty – not too different from th widow in our Gospel lesson today. Hear now the story of the Widow’s mite.

Mark 12:41-44

(Image of widow)
Jesus says that two pennies is worth more than all the money the wealthy people have put in, because the widow, a very powerless person in Biblical times, gave of herself sacrificially. She embraced and extended her own poverty in order to give, whereas they gave of their abundance. I’m not sure the core of this message ever really hits home with us because we continue to be more excited about big things – big money, big salaries, and big gifts. We admire the widow greatly for her generosity but we don’t actually believe that her gift is more. Yet that’s the strange way it is in Christ’s economy. More is less and less is more. “Give a little or give a lot.” as the kids song said. The point being: it is only a lot when it is a lot to you, when it makes you more impoverished, when it is sacrifice.

Sacrifice is at the heart of the Christ-centered existence. That’s why it is so good to be back here to engage this ministry with you. Because this ministry with you invites joyful sacrifice in my life. I cannot do exactly what I want to do. My time is not mine. My resources are not mine. I am open to your pain as well as your joy is mine. It is ours mutually. And those of you who are giving the most sacrificially, feel so much love for this church – because of your sacrifice, because of the risk you take in giving of yourselves. Those of you with children know that your love for your children is inextricably tied to the sacrifices you have made for them. Sometimes we get tired and feel the need for a break but when we are get unencumbered, then we realize freedom is not best. Sacrifice is best.

So with Emily’s youthful encouragement I sacrificed my body as much as possible, walking up these rocky hills to get these wondrous views among ruins some of them more than two thousand years old. (image of the Acrocorinth)

Here we are at the top of old Corinth, and I’m thinking Paul walked up this hill, after traveling from far away places like Thessaloniki in Macedonia. Emily and I flew there, and took a combination of bus and train back. Paul traveled by foot and by boat, in shoes as unfit for walking on rocks as Emily’s flip flops. (Image of Emily at top of Corinth) He walked up, not knowing whether he would get a nice glass of wine and delicious Greek meal at the end of the day. With every hard step, I was banking on that wonderful, warm meal at the end of day. Paul had to confront idolatry at the top of this hill. Emily and I had only a glorious view to share with a handful of other tourists. He had to confront wealthy merchants and prostitutes.

I walked up thinking how easy life is for me. Sure I was breathing hard. I was wondering if a taxi ride would have been a good idea, instead of this plan to walk it. My legs were hurting, but I reached down and picked up this rock and remembering our stewardship season theme of gratitude for this year, I thought to myself “This is my gratitude rock” With my rock in hand, and more rocks than I could begin to count under foot, I thought about the privilege of world travel, of the gift of time with a daughter turning into an adult. I was so grateful to be alive, so thankful to have seen this glorious country where the Apostle Paul did new church development. But I was also grateful to know that I could return to my place, this place of comfort and joy and peace, this place where I am called to live daily in sacrificial ministry. (Image of rocks in Corinth) By the way, this is my rock from Corinth. I wanted a pocket size one. This one is David and Dotty’s from a trip a couple of years ago. This one is Richard’s from nearly ten years ago.

Paul preached the good news of God’s grace and Christ’s sacrifice on this hill and got in trouble for it. But lives were changed and a congregation was formed and later Paul wrote a letter to them, encouraging them to be generous with other Christians, to support the churches as the Macedonians have. Having lived here for more than a year, Paul knew the Corinthians were people of greater means. This was an upscale city, Corinth. They had more to give than the generous Macedonians, more than the widow of whom Jesus spoke. And so Paul challenges them to sacrifice for the sake of fairness, of equality, to be generous because they know the generous sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who was rich and for our sakes became poor. He challenges them to help the mother church in Jerusalem, where there’s been a famine.

Hear the word of the Lord from 2 Corinthians 8:1-15

Those with abundant joy (gratitude) and extreme poverty (the Macedonians) overflow in a wealth of generosity. Paul says they voluntarily gave according to their means and even beyond their means. To give beyond your means is to engage in voluntary poverty. They did it because they wanted (desperately wanted) a share in the exciting new church development on which Paul and other were working. They were grateful for what Christ had done for them.

So Paul says to the wealthier folks in Corinth – those of did not have a cash flow problem – since you’re doing well in everything, since you’ve got a lot going for you, take this generosity on as well.

Here’s why: Jesus Christ had everything too. He had all the power of God because he was God. He had all the glory of God because he was God. He had all the freedom of God because he was God. But he chose to sacrifice it for love. He gave it all up, made himself impoverished or destitute, so that we’d experience the richness of God’s love, the abundant of God’s goodness, the power of our redemption. Jesus was what we are meant to be - completely generous to the point of joyful, willing sacrifice.

Paul challenges the Corinthians to complete their task, much as we have a task to complete here at Peace. We have by God’s grace and blessing, accomplished so much. We are giving more than 20% of our budget away. We are giving percentage-wise more than any other church to our presbytery’s mission. We are becoming independent financially after a five year grant was put in place by presbytery to help us get started as a new church. We have a wonderful and devoted staff in place, and the best volunteer leaders and servants of any congregation I know.

So we must complete our work, according to our means. Paul is quick to add that he’s not begging the Corinthians to give beyond their means – only that they give fairly according to the gifts they have. But when they choose to give beyond their means, as the Macedonians did, Paul celebrates.

For some of you, deciding to consistently give twenty-five dollars each week or one hundred/month is a new step and a big one. It is a challenge. Perhaps you’ve been really pulling yourself out of a crisis or are on the verge of one.

Nobody, not Paul nor I is asking you to be ridiculously sacrificial. But we are asking you to consider a new lifestyle which says “I love God first, I’m grateful for my blessings, and willing to make some sacrifices in order to be generous with others.”

For others $100/week is really no sacrifice because you are covering your bills without nail-biting and fear each month, without that panicky feeling that you’re going to open a second notice you cannot afford to pay. You may need to dig deeper, to find that more challenging place of generosity. Realize that God has promised to take care of you, so you can reach for a higher level of giving. Would you really notice if you added another $25-50 each week? If you wouldn’t notice it, then perhaps you have not reached for sacrificial giving yet. Find the joy of a gratitude-filled trust in your shepherding, loving Lord for your future.

For Richard and me $200 each week felt like a stretch a couple of years ago when we first decided to try it and sometimes it feels foolish even now. But we don’t go down that thought-path. No, we’re not saving for the future as we should. We’re barely covering college bills, and it’s only going to be worse next year and the next. But we feel called to tithe and give weekly as much as we think we can, because we have learned how much more joyful we are when we make such sacrifices, when we trust God enough to be slightly unguarded and uncalculating. It helps to know that certain activities and purchases are ruled out because of our giving to church. There is something very liberating about feeling the sacrifice, knowing our limitations, trusting God.

For some of you, giving generously can means a tremendous difference for Peace’s budget, much as the Corinthians had the wealth to make a difference for the Jerusalem Church. You have enough money to insure that Peace can be bolstered for future growth, but maybe knowing you have that power and privilege makes you nervous. Your sacrifice is one of trusting that you will not be given too much power in your giving. You don’t want to be the only one giving at that level. You want to inspire others to give, so there a fair balance. But to give less than you are able is not to make the sacrifice that the Lord of these scriptures calls you to make, so you feel the burden of potential giving. I heard from one family at Peace who plans to take a major step in giving this year, out of gratitude for what God is doing at Peace, out of a firm conviction that we must all step forward to see Peace into the future. I hope this gift will inspire all of you reach. Would it not be great if we exceeded our budgetary needs this stewardship season and could begin saving for a building? Would it not be wonderful if we knew that we would have no trouble paying all our staff well and continuing our commitment to a generous benevolence toward those with greater needs?

We do not want anyone to have too little or too much, Paul says. We want a fair balance between those with abundance and those with great need.

But whether you yourself have a great abundance or great need, the call is to sacrifice as you can, according to your own means. It is a matter of your heart, your sacrifice, not your amount compared with that of someone else. It is the level of giving which requires deep trust on your part. The riches of voluntary poverty are not monetary riches, but the deeper riches of being in the right relationship of trust with God, so that you are willing to do whatever God asks of you.

Your heart will be filled to overflowing with gratitude for all of God’s good gifts when you begin to make sacrifices in response to the voluntary poverty, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, in being one with us, that we might be one with God. There is no place of greater riches, than being one with God in Jesus Christ. To be like Christ is to sacrifice.

So let us all touch our rock daily and count our blessings, not our limitations. Let us be grateful for the little things and stop lusting for the big. Stop dwelling on what’s missing in your life and look around and see just how rich you are with the blessings of God. Remember the global perspective – the relative comfort of our way of life. Be joyful, be free, be prayerful and open. In the spirit of our loving Christ, volunteer to be poorer tomorrow than you are today, and you will be richer than you’ve ever been.

Let us pray: “We want to be rich in our souls, rich in your grace and peace. So take our lives, take our hearts, take our minds, take our wills, take our resources and make them your own. We consecrate all that we are to you in the generous Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ.